Young Thugs: Innocent Blood Review
Young Thugs: Innocent Blood is in fact the second entry in a series of films that started in 1996 with the release of Kazuyuki Izutsu’s Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai (Boy Hooligans of Kishiwada). Since then several “sequels” have been made, all adapted from Riichi Nakaba’s heavily dramatized, semi-autobigraphical novels. This doesn’t mean that Innocent Blood is a direct sequel though, because each film in the series play as stand-alone comedy dramas in their own right, painting an outlandishly nostalgic portrait of life during the 60’s and 70’s in Kishiwada, a fishing district off the coast of Osaka.
High school sweethearts Riichi (Koji Chihara) and Ryoko (Sarina Suzuki), together with their best friends Yuji (Yasushi Chihara, the real life brother of Koji) and Kotetsu (Kyosuke Yabe) are a rambunctious rabble who gave their schoolteachers many headaches during their formative years, but are now fresh out of school and facing life as young adults in the big wide world. Proving that maybe women are more sensible after all, Ryoko finds work at a local hairdressers while the three young men revert back to their school type as Boy Hooligans and start a campaign of gang warfare and petty violence among the streets of Kishiwada. Stuck in a nostalgic time warp the youngsters are simply refusing to grow up, but all good things must come to an end and when Riichi falls for his childhood girlfriend, Nahomi, thus ending his relationship with Ryoko, it sparks the start of a transitional period where each character begins to take those first important steps into adulthood.
Innocent Blood is a film overflowing with sentiment, the director Takashi Miike is an Osaka man born and bred himself and you can clearly see the affinity he has with Riichi Nakaba’s novels. For a start he has structured the film into two seasonal halves: Winter and Summer, so the story starts and ends in Spring, a time Japanese people associate with the prime of youth. Miike knew that the most important thing wasn’t for all of the characters to mature into adults but for some of them to merely flirt with the possibility because the major theme of the piece is nostalgia. It’s a fond recollection of a time long past with the childhood state of the protagonists being regarded with an almost holy reverence by the director. This is most apparent in the film’s opening third, the central characters are introduced at their school graduation playing one last evil prank on their homeroom teacher as the song Aogeba Totoshi echoes in the background. A somewhat ironic gag because the song is commonly sung at graduation ceremonies in Japan as a gesture of thanks and farewell from students to their teachers, whereas the teacher here is certainly getting none of that treatment from his own devious pupils. What he does get is a plant dropped on his head and his wallet lifted, but the juxtaposition of an innocent prank and criminal theft perfectly establishes the dichotomy of these adolescents. Another subtle touch in this scene is the Sakura leaves gently blowing across the scenery, providing one more common symbol of the full bloom of youth and springtime in Japanese culture. After this evocative portrayal of their graduation we are then treated to one of Miike’s trademarks; a frenetic montage that goes through the group’s early post-school days, showing Ryoko settling into her new life as a hairdresser and the three boys tearing it up as local hoods all interspersed with snapshots from their graduation. This sends out a clear message that while their schooldays are behind them they certainly haven’t made any effort to make the transition into adulthood.
Miike has always imbued his work with subtle Manga comic book stylings, but in Innocent Blood he cranks it up a notch to deliver the action with comedic exaggeration and zest. It’s important that the tone of the violence is just right because to the characters fighting is their one medium to relive their fond memories of childhood. A warm nostalgic solace for a group of adolescents with absolutely no idea how to make that important step into adulthood. There’s no hard feelings attached to these confrontations either, in fact just about all the characters that come to blows end the film on somewhat amicable terms and they shake off the kind of excessive injuries that would cause serious harm or even critical injury in the real world. I’m sure many people will be turned off by the slightly graphic nature of certain scenes and I must admit the film is uncompromisingly brutal at times (although compared to most films he’s done it’s all quite tame), but when you consider what the violence is expressing about the characters, and the fact that the entire film has a deeply ironic tone about it, then it can be extremely amusing to just sit back and accept this highly romantic mental state Riichi and the other hooligans have about pain and bloodshed.
The problem with making such an energetic start is that you have to follow it with an engrossing midsection. One of Miike’s major recurring themes is the slow (and sometimes brutal) disbanding of a close group unit, and as such each character is inevitably snapped out of their nostalgic idyll by the breakdown of Ryoko and Riichi’s relationship. It is at this point that the pace of the film really starts to falter, Ryoko is heartbroken and disappears off screen for quite some time, Riichi has become henpecked and is slowly being persuaded to leave his adolescence behind and settle down but it’s making him miserable and Kotetsu and Yuji are starting new courtships of their own. Miike’s direction and Masa Nakamura’s screenplay just doesn’t have the same enthusiasm about it throughout these character turning points and proceedings almost threaten to sink into cheesy soap melodrama. The fact that so many important details about Riichi and Nahomi’s relationship are left to exposition makes me wonder just how invested in this subplot they were and what should’ve been a large part of the film ends up feeling tacked on like a necessary evil just to get the central protagonist, Riichi, into a place where he can consider leaving his childhood memories behind.
Still, if you can grit out this temporary bout of lethargy you will be rewarded because proceedings get back on track quite nicely leading into the final act and the onset of spring. It’s a big relief because there are so many aspects of this film to enjoy that it would’ve been a shame had proceedings gone completely off the boil after such an exciting start, but the touching, bittersweet conclusion ensures that overall, Young Thugs: Innocent Blood remains nothing less than engaging.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 1.79:1 the transfer is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand it’s window-boxed to avoid any information lost by TV overscan, the colours are strong, detail levels are average and brightness and contrast levels generally solid meaning Innocent Blood looks a little better than ArtsmagicDVD’s previous Miike releases. On the other hand it just isn’t a very film-like presentation at all with composite video processing artifacts present throughout, like cross colouration present (particularly noticeable in the school uniforms at the start) and dot crawl in the title cards. Also, with it being an interlaced transfer, there’s some obtrusive shimmer present in certain scenes. Continuing the collection of irksome niggles the print isn’t particularly clean, with nicks and scratches appearing frequently and compression isn’t as solid as it should be, resulting in some noticeable chroma and low-level noise at times. Overall I think only the fussiest of viewers or those with a large screen set up will have any real problems with this transfer but there’s no doubt that ArtsmagicDVD have got plenty to improve upon here.
For our aural delectation there’s a choice of two Japanese tracks, DD5.1 or DD2.0 surround, for the purpose of this review I sat down and watched the film twice and I have to say the DD2.0 surround is the clear winner, providing a solid sonic presentation of the film with clear audible dialogue and warm bass. The audio may sound a little hollow at times but I have a feeling that is down to the original sound recording.
In comparison the DD5.1 track certainly has a lot more kick, with some nice deep bass but the entire track is mixed too loud. There’s heavy audio hiss present throughout and the dialogue tears whenever any passionate shouting occurs, but if that wasn’t bad enough it must be an in-house remix because it is essentially a monaural track with the same sound coming out of each speaker at the same time. I assume this track was tacked on more as a gimmick to attract the 5.1 zealots, in which case it serves it’s purpose, but it’s no way to experience this film and I hope that in future they either start mixing their DD5.1 tracks better or simply accompany them with the original stereo mixes, because generally ArtsmagicDVD provide good 2.0 Surround audio tracks.
As ever optional English subtitles are present with no grammatical or spelling errors that come to mind.